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Idly, I sat on the sidelines, watching as my classmates played crossfire on the courts etched in white on the black asphalt. Shouts and loud smacks rang out as people slung the red rubber balls at each other, but I was oblivious to it all. I sat, laying out pebbles in swirling designs on the edge of the crooked white lines. I had never liked crossfire, or any sport for that matter, and whenever I had the chance I chose to sit out rather than play alongside the rowdy kids. My teammates were fine with that – after all, nobody wanted a chubby, ungainly girl on their team anyway. Occasionally the daycare teacher would come by and lecture us on the importance of giving everyone an equal chance to play, and when she did I automatically got up and joined the game, then returned to my sitting after she left. The other kids accepted that with tacit understanding, allowing me to come and go as I pleased.
I had just finished spelling out my name on the blacktop when a pair of sharp white sneakers stepped blatantly into my view. They nudged the pebbles I had arranged, making the T crooked. I resisted an urge to right it, knowing that I risked a stomped finger if I did. Cautiously, I looked up into the sharp, thin face of Penny, an outgoing, aggressive girl who I was convinced hated me.
She scowled at me, only adding to my conviction. “What are you doing?” Her tone indicated the arrest of a criminal – me.
I stared blankly back at her. “Nothing. Um, thinking. Playing.”
“You’re not playing anything!” She looked condescendingly down at my pebbles. “You’re…lining up rocks. How stupid and boring.”
“They’re not…” I began, intending to defend myself, but suddenly it seemed that lining up rocks really was stupid and boring. Did that mean I was stupid and boring, too? I paused for a second, trying to collect my wits. Penny cut me off smoothly.
“How come you never play anything normal?” she asked archly, emphasizing the normal as she twirled the red rubber ball in her hands. “I bet you’ve never played dodgeball before in your life. Couch potato. Fatty.”
The cruel names slammed into me, as damaging as physical blows, and I felt as though I had been paralyzed. I wanted to duck, to shield myself from her taunts, to stalwartly defend myself even, but I could only stare at her.
“Fatty.” She repeated her accusation.
“I’m not – ”
“I’m not a couch potato!” I blurted. “I’ve played crossfire before.” I hesitated. “Lots of times,” I lied unconvincingly.
“Prove it, then.” Penny demanded, her face full of contempt. She dangled the red ball in front of me, the way you gave a dog a treat. I floundered. Nearby stood Lina, who had been my friend before Penny had convinced her otherwise. She stood a ways off, but from the way she held my gaze I was sure that she had heard most of the conversation. Desperately, I tried to signal to her with my eyes. Help me. Her face remained carefully blank, showing no pity.
“Prove it,” she echoed softly. Her words were a death sentence.
Numbly, I picked up the red ball, which Penny had dropped impatiently on my pebbles, scattering them. The rough rubbery texture of the dirt-encrusted ball felt alien in my soft, fleshy palms. I couldn’t even remember how to throw it. With one hand, or two? Did the ball have to bounce? I bit my lip. Why had I claimed to know how to play crossfire?
Uneasily, I stepped into the crossfire court. The other kids looked at me curiously, perhaps wondering why I was on the court when the daycare teacher was clearly nowhere to be seen. Penny stepped onto the opposite side of the court, her arms crossed. Her certainty unnerved me. My hands shaking, I gathered the ball in my two hands and pushed it away from me with all my strength. Go far, please, I begged it.
The ball bounced lamely a couple times and rolled onto the other side of the court, as harmless as a sock. I barely had time to flush with shame before, in one coiled, snake-like motion, Penny scooped up the rolling dodgeball and flung it back, striking me forcefully in the hip. I fell, hard. I imagined I could hear my lie – “I’ve played crossfire – lots of times” – shattering into a million pieces. A few sympathetic looks flashed through the faces of the other kids as I painstakingly picked my aching body off the unyielding concrete. Already I could tell that there would be bruises.
“I…I don’t want to play anymore.” I couldn’t tell if my voice was shaking or not. Surely honest words rang truer and stronger than petty, forced lies? I hoped that Penny would hear the firmness in my voice and back off.
She laughed at me.
“Couch potato! Fatty!”
Penny spat the words at me, her eyes cruelly triumphant. She looked like some twisted Roman hero, presiding magnificently over the enemy’s dead body. No one contested her words. Stately in her savagery, she flounced away.
It hadn’t worked. I hadn’t been able to defend myself at all – not against her stinging blows, nor against her merciless name-calling. Slowly, I went and sat back down on the asphalt, eyes stinging with tears, her taunts still ringing in my ears.